Nikita Mikhalkov: At Home Among Strangers

in 9th Lecce Festival of European Cinema

by Sauro Borelli

Among the many events that took place at the 9th edition of the Lecce Festival of European Cinema, one of the most interesting was the one dedicated to the Russian film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov, arguably one of the most intriguing European newcomers back in the 1970’s, and still a valuable actor and director of many movies worthy of our attention and consideration.            

I had the pleasure of meeting the man himself in June 1980, when I also had the opportunity of watching his first five movies one after the other. I found them totally absorbing, both by the peculiar style of expression, and by the unusual subject matter. After many talks with the director (at the time a sturdy young man in his mid-thirties who, ignoring the eagle-eyed Soviet chaperones, was spending his days playing tennis and bathing in the sea), I asked the famous critic Fernaldo Di Giammatteo (the editor of the important Italian series “Il Castoro Cinema”) if I could write a monograph on him: he liked the idea, although Mikhalkov’s filmography at the time was far from huge: only five full-length movies plus his medium-length debut. At the time I was the main film-critic for the Italian newspaper “L’Unità”, so my work on the above mentioned monograph was sometimes very hard and not-so-very-hard other times (due to my continuous travels around and outside Italy for different events). But, around July 1981, I finished my monograph of Mikhalkov. At the time my “Castoro” was one of the few, if not the only, long essay (both in Italy and in URSS), dedicated to the already respected maestro from Russia.              

Today, as the man is well into his sixties, and as Lecce 2008 is celebrating him, I’d like to write something more about his complete works that started with his middle-length debut of A Quiet Day During the End of War (Spokoynyy den v kontse voyny, 1970) and the full-length movie At Home among Strangers (Svoy sredi chuzhikh, chuzhoy sredi svoikh, 1974), reached several levels of excellence and deep inspiration: from Slave of Love (Raba lyubvi, 1976), a fascinating epic about love and death during the October Revolution, to An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano (Neokonchennaya pyesa dlya mekhanicheskogo pianino, 1977), adapted by Mikhalkov from an early Chekhov play (“Platonov”); from Five Evenings (Pyat vecherov, 1979), a post-war existentialist drama, to A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov (Neskolko dney iz zhizni I.I. Oblomova, 1979), a brilliant and very innovative reworking of the classic Goncharov novel; from Kinkfolk (Rodnya, 1981), a bittersweet urban comedy of poignant humanity, to Without Witness (Bez svideteley, 1983), a sort of kammerspiel about a husband and his wife falling apart and becoming enemies; from Dark Eyes (Oci ciornie, 1987), a lyrical return to Chekhovian themes staring the great Mastroianni, to Close to Eden (Urga, Golden Lion in Venice 1991), a picaresque incursion into the Mongolian steppes; to Anna: From Six Till Eighteen (Anna: Ot shesti do vosemnadtsati, 1993), a peculiar initiation of a daughter to adulthood.          

More films followed, with spectacular themes like Burnt by the Sun (Utomlyonnye solntsem, 1994), a sentimental story but filled with criticism of the leading character (the heroic Colonel Kotov, played with the usual skill and passion by Mikhalkov himself) during the tragic Stalin years; and the Barber of Siberia (Sibirskiy tsiryulnik, 1998), a sparkling (and rhetorical) panegyric of the despotic tsar Alexander III (1845-1894).            

After a long sabbatical away from the movie camera, Nikita Mikhalkov was present in Venice 2007 with a remake of Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men. The movie, simply called 12, has the great originality of his first works. Some hard-to-please critics wrongly overlooked it at the time. Mikhalkov develops here the plot of the Lumet movie (twelve jurymen are ready to judge a man) and turns it into a bitter apology for today’s Russia: the dozen meet up in Moscow to judge a Chechen boy who allegedly killed his foster father… Nikita Mikhalkov doesn’t want to lecture anyone here, but he follows his first ambition: to find himself “at home among strangers”.